Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘sentencing

Upcoming Event: NASC 2010 on the Alabama Gulf Coast

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The National Association of Sentencing Commissions (NASC) will hold its 2010 conference this August 8-10 in Point Clear, Alabama, which is on the Mobile Bay. Registration info available here. (h/t: Doug Berman)

I had the opportunity to attend some sessions of the 2008 NASC conference in San Francisco and can attest that it’s an informative, thought-provoking event that attracts a wide range of criminal justice professionals from around the country. And based on many childhood vacations, I can also attest that the Alabama Gulf Coast region is a very nice place to visit! (Although it has tragically been hit hard by the BP oil spill.) The conference agenda is available here; the theme is “Sound Sentencing Policy: Balancing Justice and Dollars”:

This year’s conference will offer plenaries, workshops and roundtable discussions on issues relating to sentencing practices and the hurdles sentencing commissions and criminal justice officials must overcome during these times of shrinking budgets and scarce resources, as well as innovative ways that states have faced these challenges. Welcoming the conference attendees will be Alabama’s Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, Federal Circuit Judge, Bill Pryor, former Attorney General of Alabama and leader in establishing Alabama’s Sentencing Commission, and Commission Chair, Retired Circuit Judge Joe Colquitt, Beasley Professor of Law, University of Alabama School of Law.

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Written by sara

July 6, 2010 at 2:38 pm

South Carolina Debates Sentencing Reforms

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The Palmetto State has seen its prison population triple since 1983, with much of that increase coming from nonviolent offenders and — similar to, although not as extreme as, California — technical parole violators. According to the Sentencing Project’s interactive map (which, by the way, is a great source of data), South Carolina currently incarcerates over 36,000 men and women, with another 40,000+ on probation or parole, all at a cost of $629 million per year. Though it’s worth noting that unlike some other states, the incarceration rate in South Carolina is not hugely disparate between blacks and whites (the ratio is 1.1:1 — compare, for instance, Connecticut, which has a 6.6:1 ratio. As you can see, the “Compare by States” feature of the Sentencing Project map is really handy). The combination of budget woes and prison overcrowding came to a head in South Carolina earlier this year, when the state had to decide whether to release 3,000 prisoners or run a $29 million deficit.

With the goals of hemming in prison spending and alleviating overcrowding, the South Carolina legislature is currently considering a proposal to provide alternate sanctions for nonviolent offenders. Here’s a description of the bill, from a Greenville News editorial in favor of the legislation:

The bill further defines violent and nonviolent crimes, calls for streamlining sentencing to ensure there is room in state prisons for the most violent offenders, and reduces sentences for some nonviolent crimes. It also establishes options for community-based programs such as the drug courts that have been effective in Greenville County.

The changes were proposed by the legislatively appointed Sentencing Reform Commission and were published earlier this year. The need for sentencing reform is evident. … Nearly half of the system’s inmates are being held for nonviolent offenses. …

According to the Sentencing Reform Commission, the proposed changes would save taxpayers $92 million in Corrections’ operating costs over five years. They also would save Corrections the estimated $317 million it would cost to add the prison space that would be needed absent the changes.

It’s worth noting, though, that the bill would also lengthen some sentences: the Orangeburg Times and Democrat reports, for instance, that it would increase the maximum penalty for attempted murder to 30 years (from a current maximum of 10 years).

California Sentencing Law: What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

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I’m currently doing some research on California’s 1977 switch to determinate sentencing. As background, from 1917 forward California (like many states) had what’s known as “indeterminate sentencing,” meaning that convicted offenders would get sentenced to a very broad term — say, 1 year to life — and then they would go periodically before the parole board, who would decide if they were sufficiently rehabilitated to be released back into the community. Among other consequences of this policy, the parole board — an unelected and relatively anonymous government body — had all the practical power over sentencing in California — legislators, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys had virtually no say in how much time any given defendant would actually wind up serving. Also, the sentences actually served for the same crime varied widely from one offender to the next: For instance, out of inmates doing time for second-degree murder in the early 1970s, the actual time served ranged from 19 months to 26 years.

This all changed after 1977, when California passed legislation involving a broad set of criminal justice reforms, including a switch to “determinate sentencing.” Now, post-1977 California sentencing law gives new meaning to the word byzantine, so I won’t go into all the details here, but the core idea behind the changes was twofold: (1) the purpose of imprisonment is punishment, not rehabilitation, and (2) offenders who commit similar crimes should serve similar sentences. So, under California’s determinate sentencing scheme, the legislature prescribes a narrow sentencing range for each offense (e.g., 2, 3, or 4 years for crime [x], plus various “enhancements” — additional terms of years that can be tacked on — for things like using a firearm or being a repeat offender). The sentence imposed by the judge, minus good-time credits accumulated while in prison, is the sentence that the offender actually does; the parole board can’t let him out early. I’ve just made the whole process sound a few orders of magnitude more straightforward than it actually is, once you factor in complications like concurrent vs. consecutive sentencing, multiple offenses, subsequent reforms like the Three Strikes Law, etc., etc., etc., which is why many California judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, etc. rely on a computer program to figure out any particular defendant’s sentencing exposure. (Oh, to be one of those states that just has a single-page chart.)

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Written by sara

February 9, 2010 at 7:28 pm

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